With $80.5 million in just one day (including midnight screenings), the second-biggest opening day at the North American box-office and another $95 million expected on Saturday and Sunday, it seems everyone who wanted to see THE AVENGERS has or will see THE AVENGERS. If you have, count yourself among the lucky many. If you haven’t, then there’s one and only one question we can ask you: Why not? More seriously, if you have, indeed, seen THE AVENGERS already, you probably left the movie theater wondering who that mysterious figure was who appeared in the first (of two) post-credit scenes. If so, then look no further, but definitely read further. Note that spoilers can and will be discussed.
When we last leave the Avengers, they’ve defeated Loki and his alien army, the Chitauri. As seen early on, Loki made a pact with the leader of the Chitauri, identified only as the Other (Alexis Denisoff). Loki promised the Tesseract, the super-powerful alien artifact that almost fell into the hands of the Red Skull in CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER last summer (actually Marvel’s version of World War II), to the Other in exchange for the Other’s army. Loki planned to use the Chitauri to defeat the Avengers, including his hated adopted brother, Thor, conquer the Earth and declare himself King or Emperor or even Supreme Ruler. Loki never did decide on a title for himself, but that’s a moot point since Loki and the Chitauri.
Back to the Other and the mystery figure: The Other throws out a few lines about how unruly humans are and how much more difficult than expected their resistance was. The Other suggests challenging humans again would be “courting death,” before his purple-skinned master turns toward the camera and smiles, ending the scene. The purple-skinned figure is none other than Thanos, a Marvel character created by Jim Starlin almost forty years ago. Thanos falls into the cosmic side of the Marvel Universe ledger. He’s rarely clashed with Marvel’s earthbound superheroes, but he has a long history of fighting and sometimes defeating Marvel’s cosmic superheroes (more about them anon).
Thanos has all the attributes of a god in the Marvel universe (super-strength, near-invulnerability, near-immortality). Unlike the better known Galactus, another god-like being with a penchant for destroying worlds (in Galactus’ defense, he’s hungry), Thanos has no such excuse. A Titan, Thanos often gets described as the “Mad Titan” for his obsession with death and destruction. The comics personified Thanos obsession into a god-like female. Thanos desire to please Death unsurprisingly results in mass slaughter and genocide. Thanos, however, is no mere brute. He’s as smart and cunning as he is super-strong. He’s charismatic, a leader capable of calling on an army or two (or more) to destroy entire worlds.
If Thanos doesn’t count as a global threat, the kind of global threat that brings or should bring the Avengers back into action, it’s hard to know what does. There’s no hard-and-fast rule, however, that Thanos will be the Avengers opponent in the sequel. He could just as well appear in the upcoming THOR sequel or left in the background, manipulating events, for a third AVENGERS film. Either way, it looks like Marvel is expanding the reach, scope, and scale of the Marvel Cinematic Universe well beyond Asgard and the Seven Realms and into the farthest reaches of outer space where threats like Thanos are likely to appear and reappear until the franchise runs its course (as all franchises do).
Taking that route involves commercial and, to a lesser extent, artistic risks, of course. New, lesser-known cosmic characters will have to be introduced in subsequent entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. For example, Marvel’s Green Lantern analog, Nova, created like Thanos, in the mid-1970s, has appeared sporadically in Marvel comics, sometimes in his own self-named titles, sometimes as the leader or member of the Avengers’ cosmic counterparts, the Guardians of the Galaxy. Both have repeatedly failed to grab enough readers to continue on as monthly comics, but that doesn’t necessarily mean their appearance in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is doomed to fail. Just look at Thor. As a member of the Avengers, he’s a golden god. As a standalone character, he’s had more difficulty, but his cinematic counterpart has raised his status among comic-book fans.
With the appearance of Thanos in THE AVENGERS, the sky might not be the limit, but the cosmos and everything the cosmos represents (e.g., wild, crazy ideas) in the Marvel comics universe, certainly is. The question remains, however, whether non-comic-book-reading moviegoers will go along for the ride. Given this weekend’s box-office results, audiences seem primed for anything Marvel Studios has to offer. As a comic-book fan (among other things), I’m willing to give Marvel the benefit of the doubt (for now, anyway).